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The power of patterns

One common human trait is our ability to abstractly systemise the world around us; understand how things relate to each other; how they operate together and decipher the rules that govern these systems. What varies amongst different cultures, societies and individuals is the level of our ability to systemise. But most of us, on a basic level, can recognise related patterns and construct systems to organise these patterns within. (Baron-Cohan, 2003)

The power of patterns

Patterns are good, because...

More than any other species on this planet, humans beings are hard-wired towards recognising and organising the world around us into categorised patterns or systems. (Baron-Cohan, 2003). Understanding this natural human ability can help designers when creating user interfaces and digital interactions. People rely on patterns within their own mental models (based on cultural, belief and social experiences) to build meaning about the environments they live in, and their place within these systems. 

If designers build upon pattern knowledge within digital experiences, then we stand a better chance of creating UI’s that are easy to perceive and learn - and thus support great user experiences.

"Conceptual models are devised as tools for the understanding or teaching of physical systems. Mental models are what people really have in their heads and what guides their use of things. Ideally, there ought to be a direct and simple relationship between the conceptual and the mental model. All too often, however, this is not the case. That a mental model reflects the user’s beliefs about the physical system seems obvious (…) what is not so obvious is the correspondence that should hold between the mental model and a conceptual model of the physical system." (Norman, 1983)

Patterns support the idea of what is familiar to people; what’s fits within their mental models of a system, an interaction or a user interface. Think of existing UI patterns we have today for login, search, social media interactions, calendars and date pickers, to name a few. Building upon current UI patterns when designing UI’s provides end-users with the ‘familiar’ as well as supporting people’s perceptions of how something will behave (through the concept of affordance) and provide them with expected outcomes (“I thought it would perform that action; ...and it did”).

I introduced the term affordance to design in my book, "The Psychology of Everyday Things" (POET: also published as "The Design of ..."). The concept has caught on, but not always with true understanding. Part of the blame lies with me: I should have used the term "perceived affordance," for in design, we care much more about what the user perceives than what is actually true. What the designer cares about is whether the user perceives that some action is possible (or in the case of perceived non-affordances, not possible). (Norman, 2004)

Using common patterns should not be seen as a hindrance for web designers. Creativity and visual design will always have a key role within UI design. Common patterns can form a base interaction ‘language’ for what high-frequency users know and expect as well as scaffolding low-frequency users with something that is easy to understand; or at worst easy to learn. Building upon current patterns can also help when developing new interactions - for example, a new online service where complex, lengthy, or branching interactions are supported with standard search, progressive disclosure, paginated steps or button patterns.

So before starting on your next project think about what patterns are worth building upon, so you can create meaningful experiences to those who need them - the end-users. And if you have any uncertainty about new UI patterns you are introducing, then check how well these items are understood and engaged with through user test sessions.



Simon Baron-Cohan, (2003). The Essential Difference.
Penguin Books, London
Chapter 1: The Male and Female Brain (pp. 3-4).

Mental Models
Mads Soegaard (Oct, 2013)
Accessed on 27 Nov 2013

Referencing Some observations on Mental Models [Norman 1983] – Mental Models Research
Dave Wood, Aesthetics of Interaction, (2009)
Accessed on 27 Nov 2013

Affordances and Design
Don Norman (2004)
Accessed on 27 Nov 2013